Reading as an active, visible social process

Boys reading

Following on from my last post, Is it time to be a ’slow professor?’, even though so many of us are still juggling home schooling and work that ramped up but still doesn’t seem to have subsided, I thought I’d pop this one out there for those that have some space to question, critique, explore strategies we use to engage students in texts critical to the understanding of your subject. 

The point of The Slow Professor (Berg and Seeber, 2016) is that we need time to think and make considered choices about what we do – in some cases, to rethink practices that have become almost automatic and unquestioned. So let’s tackle the reading of texts. 

Have you ever assigned readings followed by a discussion or reflective prompt? I know, who hasn’t. It’s one of those core practices in higher education – yet it’s also one of those areas that often goes unquestioned. You assign a reading or two, put up a prompt to start conversations and hope students will engage. What is there to question? And yet, as we do for other forms of practice, we question. I love this quote: 

Teachers teach; pedagogues teach while also actively investigating teaching and learning.

Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel in Critical Digital Pedagogy

More about that book in a second, but first? Some questions. There are many you could ask, of course, and you’ll develop your own based on what you are trying to achieve through the use of texts in your subject, your approach to teaching and so on. But here’s a start that’s as good as any. 

  • How do students respond to this approach in your classes?
  • How are they engaging with the text? What kinds of questions are they asking, and how are they interacting with each other?
  • How do they build on each others’ insights as they grapple with the complexity of what’s being said?
  • How do less confident students respond when the eager rush in with a mini-essay on the forum?
  • Are some students reading at all? If students aren’t responding to the prompts, why would that be? Why do we ever disengage or just do the minimum? Is it the nature of the prompts, the text, the learning environment…?
  • Are all students familiar with the practices of reading an academic text? 

So many questions, so little time. And yet, we need to ask them. 

One of the issues that can be raised through this kind of questioning is the distance between the text and the conversation in the online space. As someone familiar with the practices of reading an academic text, I hold a conversation with myself ‘in the margins’ of the text, highlighting important phrases or sentences, circling a sentence here and there with an annotation if it doesn’t make sense, warrants an immediate reflection that I don’t want to lose, needs follow-up or if it relates to other texts I’ve been reading that I want to cross-check. I also make longer notes on the key arguments and my critique of these. Here, the conversation is very close to the text, wound up in all its complexities and nuances, and my emerging thinking in response to those.

Yet when we move to community conversations around texts, this commentary starts to separate from the text itself, the conversations broaden, and some of those isolated moments of critical and reflective thought can be lost, especially if you assume as a student that ‘what the teacher wants’ is a mini essay that sums everything up in one neat package. Now, that may be what you want, but if bringing the text and the conversation closer together fits closer to your intentions and teaching approach, read on.

What if we could close the gap?

One of my favourite strategies that I shared in my last post was Michael Wesch modelling to students how an experienced academic reads and thinks about a text. He does this by reading aloud to them, weaving in his own expert commentary that helps those who are novices in the field both understand what’s being said, but also how it relates to other texts, concepts and experiences that they are engaging with as part of the class. It’s a beautiful example of cognitive apprenticeship, making his thinking visible and modelling ways to engage with and approach academic texts. Not to mention closing the gap between text and discussion. But not everyone is Michael Wesch. 

Let’s be clear, technology isn’t a solution to all problems, and creates more problems than it solves in many, many cases. But here’s one that I think is worth exploring, and which I’ve been playing with, on and off, for quite a while. Hypothes.is is a tool designed to support social annotation – that is, all those things I mentioned earlier that we do in isolation…without the isolation. In short, it enables you and students to:

“visit a web page, then select some text and annotate with comments or tags. You’ll see those annotations when you return to the page, and so will other Hypothesis users” (if you want them to – you can do this within groups too).

There’s a very small setup at the start – basically signing up and adding a bookmarklet to your Chrome browser. From there, I can go to any web page or online document, click on the bookmarklet and make my own highlights, comments and notes. Which isn’t that useful until you get to the social part.

Imagine, for example, I wanted to take on Michael Wesch’s approach, and annotate text with my own notes to model and help cultivate critical reading within my discipline area. That’s a super simple way to explore the use of the tool for yourself, without asking anything of the students (in terms of signing up, learning a new tool etc). As Jeremy Dean says, ‘it’s a very real way to be present in their learning’ through an activity that is traditionally isolated. 

A next step would be to bring students into that annotation process, making comments and highlights with and for each other. Here, the gap between text and conversation really starts to narrow. As an educator, you might want to provoke with questions at different points of the text available to students for comment while they are reading. Students can make their own comments, asking questions about particular sections quickly and easily as they arise (and responding to those of others with their own thoughts), critiquing, providing insights and connecting different texts to each other through the conversation, building their understanding of the key ideas as they go. 

What does it look like?

Here’s an example of students annotating Supreme Court opinions on professor’s website:

And another of neuroscience grad students annotating PDFs of journal articles hosted at scholarly databases:


The best resources for exploring this

Jesslyn Wilkinson has created a great little course on social annotation that goes into how we read digital texts, the benefits of social annotation, evidence from practice, how to get started with Hypothesis (creating an account, adding the bookmarklet etc) and some example activities. 

social annotation

Social Annotation: Reading out Loud

There’s also a webinar from eCampusOntario that you might find useful. You’ll get to hear about the technology (listen from the start), an educator using it (starts @ 10:40mins) and a student who experienced it within a class (starts @ 20:15mins). The short demo comes in at around 34 mins.

But…like anything, you’ll learn the most by exploring it as a participant, and right now is a good time for that through an open exploration of an important collection of essays by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel: An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy. More about this below. 

Explore with others 

During May and June, there’s an open book club that’s using Hypothesis to explore one of the texts that I mentioned last month: Critical Digital Pedagogy. You’ll find the reading schedule here: #OpenBookClub Reading Schedule.

The schedule shares the parts of the text that are being explored each week, as well as the zoom meetings where the text is discussed with the authors (though the timing is fairly awful for us in Australia – hopefully there’ll be recordings). You can annotate the online version of the text and engage in discussions there and (if Twitter is your thing) also engage in broader questions around the text using the hashtag: #OpenBookClub. Keen to see what it’s like before signing up? No problems. Here’s a link so you can take a look at what that’s like before creating your own Hypothesis account.

Why do this? 

  • First, the book is great and if you’re wanting to engage in SoLT, having a foundation in critical digital pedagogy is a really good start.
  • Second, you’ll be exploring a text collaboratively, learning with and from others as well as from the text itself. Document the experience as part of your SoLT reflections.
  • Third, it gives you an opportunity to use Hypothesis as a participant, and see how it works for you. We should do this with EVERY tool we use – questioning its assumptions, potential opportunities and also pitfalls as a tool for learning.